One Arabian Night
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 14 June 2007
Source Kino Video DVD
Sumurun shares with Anna Boleyn Lubitsch’s taste, in many of the major films made in his native Germany, for the lavish spectacle, large casts, and elaborate sets of the historical epic. Although, in the case of Sumurun, we should speak more of an ahistorical epic, for its setting is a never-never fantasy world of the Arabian Nights – not for nothing was it re-titled One Arabian Night on its original U.S. release during the silent period – peopled by a bevy of harem girls, a cruel and lascivious sheikh, a platoon of shaven eunuchs, a slave trader, an exotic-erotic dancer, and so forth.
Sex is at the centre of this world and at the centre of the interest the film tries to elicit in its audience – right from the film’s opening scene the dancer played by Pola Negri displays herself erotically to the inevitably male audience both within and outside the film – and this certainly aligns Sumurun more with what defines for us the world of Lubitsch’s cinema. This is all the more so, as, in marked contrast to Anna Boleyn, comedy is far more of a factor in Sumurun, with Lubitsch’s taste for the kind of grotesque humour we can see in The Oyster Princess or I Don’t Want To Be A Man well to the fore. For Lubitsch this is literally to the fore, as the film marks his last acting appearance, here in the role of the clownish hunchback who is ludicrously enamoured with Pola Negri’s dancing girl.
The romantic triangles familiar from later Hollywood Lubitsch films (Gary Cooper/Fredric March/Miriam Hopkins in Design For Living; Herbert Marshall/Hopkins/Kay Francis in Trouble in Paradise; Jack Benny/Carole Lombard/Robert Stack in To Be or Not To Be) find a precursor in a whole series of shifting romantic/sexual triangles in Sumurun. Initially, the range of characters proves a little confusing, but eventually the nexus of relationships settles, with the link being formed by Paul Wegener’s slant-eyed strangely Oriental-looking sheikh.
First, there is the triangle centred on Pola Negri’s dancing girl, with on the one side Lubitsch’s grotesque hunchbacked minstrel-jester and on the other the Sheikh’s son. But among the minstrels themselves there are other triangles being played off. The dancing girl deliberately toys with the admiration – and gifts – of the hunchback and of a younger man, accepting and then rejecting each as the mood fits; and then this triangle is mirrored in comic-grotesque vein in the old woman’s attentions toward the hunchback in rivalry with the dancing girl.
When the slave trader interests the sheikh in the dancing girl, a new triangle is formed with father and son (the son aware, the father not) competing for the same woman—and literally sharing her in the same bedchamber. And the sheikh’s lust for the dancing girl is a reaction to his disappointment in Sumurun, his harem girl—the transfer in his affections is effected through the necklace he removes from Sumurun and passes on to the dancer towards the end of the film.
The central romantic relationship is that between Sumurun and the young cloth merchant, a relationship which, once it’s discovered by the sheikh, brings Sumurun close to execution. It’s also the one relationship which the film depicts without the slightest trace of comedy. In the film’s own terms it’s to be read as a love of great nobility, and Jenny Hasselqvist and Harry Liedtke’s over-emoting silent acting style is an expression of that would-be heightened nobility. Just watch how Sumurun twists and holds her body in a stiffened, frozen gesture of rejection of the sheikh. Or how the merchant does the same to the dancing girl when, in one further twist on the film’s multiple triangles, she makes a play for him.
Sumurun caters for all the fantasies of a decadent, eroticised East. It’s a corrupt, sensual, cruel, and violent world. There is a serious edge to the story, where the two central figures of Sumurun and the cloth merchant run the risk of death in their pursuit of their love, and the narrative itself ends in a flurry of killings. But where Anna Boleyn’s serious romantic/political plot was merely occasionally leavened by comic touches, in Sumurun comedy is a central part of the film’s narrative structure.
There’s a whole series of nice visual gags, such as the way, on the appearance of the cloth merchant, the heads of the harem girls pop up one after the other in the windows of the palace; or with the repeated antics of the merchant’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee servants. Then, there’s lots of extended physical comedy. One example: when the slave trader tries to approach the sheikh about the dancing girl, he’s tossed back again and again from the palace gates—until the guards realise their mistake, set off in pursuit of him, capture him, and literally throw him over the palace wall.
A major comic sub-plot is the means for resolving the central lovers’ dilemma—how to get the merchant into the palace for an assignation with Sumurun. Here, the lovelorn hunchback takes a love potion, falls into a death-like trance, gets carried around town wrapped up in a shroud pursued by the equally lovelorn drunk old woman, and then is hidden in one of two chests (the merchant’s hiding in the other one) that are taken to the palace. The manic, frantic tone to this comedy, with much rushing back and forth, up and down, to and fro, certainly undercuts any seriousness that Sumurun’s main plot line might be trying to cultivate.
But in the end the balance between the comic and the serious is an uncertain one, and there’s no real integration of the two. In Sumurun’s final sequences romantic melodrama takes precedence, but Lubitsch, in his comic persona here, still allows himself the last word. The noble lovers come together, violent death is wreaked upon the more lubricious lovers of this world, and we end on a note of literal release from the enclosed world of the harem, as the heavy wooden doors open and first the harem girls and then Sumurun and her lover emerge towards us and then past us, out of the film. But there’s one last shot in the film, reserved to Lubitsch alone. His role in the plot as jealousy-crazed avenger is now forgotten, and he holds himself in comic-distorted position, strumming on his lute—the director, in his own way, offering a final, complicitous wink at his audience.